4 Questions, 3 Answers About the North Korea Crisis

4 Questions, 3 Answers About the North Korea Crisis
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Question 1: How serious is the North Korean crisis?

Answer: Deadly serious. It is the closest the world has come to a possible nuclear exchange since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. That crisis, you will remember, ended only after President Kennedy imposed a naval blockade (an act of war in international law) and threatened further escalation. That threat, credible as it was, led to a diplomatic solution.

Question 2: Has President Trump made the Korean crisis worse?

Answer: That remains to be seen, but the U.S. escalation of rhetoric was done quite deliberately. It appears to be a premediated strategy, not a reckless impulse. Trump and his national security team apparently believe that continuing to wait, an approach President Obama spun as “strategic patience,” means that North Korea will soon have the capacity to destroy American cities with nuclear-tipped, intercontinental missiles. Successive U.S. presidents have called that danger unacceptable and worried that America’s overwhelming military capacity might not deter North Korea.

The underlying problem is that the Kim family regime is unpredictable and unstable, and, under its current leader, Kim Jong-un, it is even more so. If his regime faced an existential danger, it would confront a choice of giving up the weapons or using them. No one really knows what would happen in that case, but U.S. experts have reached the same grim conclusion: There is a significant chance it would not be deterred.

With the U.S. and allied intelligence communities now agreeing that North Korea is close to a miniaturized nuclear weapon that could hit the United States—as well as South Korea and Japan—Trump has decided that the only way to resolve the issue short of war is to convey an immediate sense of crisis with the potential to escalate. That means ratcheting up the pressure, rhetorically, militarily, and economically.

Question 3: Is the Trump administration in disarray on this issue, given that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's has offered to talk with North Korea and reassured Americans they can “sleep well”?

Answer: No. It is "good cop, bad cop." A secretary of state who disagreed fundamentally with the administration on a life-or-death foreign policy issue would have to resign. Before that happened, you would hear about internal opposition on the front pages of the New York Times and Washington Post. The leakers would portray themselves as the good guys doing their best to restrain the “crazies.” So far, we haven’t read that.

Actually, we heard something different after Trump’s unprecedented threat of pouring “fire and fury” on the North Korean regime. Secretary of Defense James Mattis issued his own threat, calmly stating that Pyongyang’s nuclear program “poses a threat to global security and stability… [and that it] should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.”

Trump’s threat echoed the chilling one President Harry Truman made after dropping the first atomic bomb in history. “We are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city. ... If they do not now accept our terms they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” Truman’s “rain of ruin” is Trump’s “fire and fury.”

Question 4: How will this dangerous crisis end?

Answer: No one knows. That is the whole point of Washington’s strategy and, alas, Pyongyang’s and Beijing’s. Actually, it has always been their strategy: “Our adversaries fear war on the Korean Peninsula so much they will back down.” What’s new is that Washington is now aiming this logic back at North Korea and China. That’s why the situation is so dangerous. Both sides think the other will cave rather than go to war, but they will only cave if war is a real possibility.

No American president before Trump did anything serious, much less effective, to deter Pyongyang. No president before Trump did anything to convince China to change its fundamental decision that it was better off supporting Kim's regime and its weapons programs than risking some alternative.

The only way to change China's calculus is to convince it the alternatives are worse. That means:

  • Making the threat of war on the peninsula credible.
  • Threatening real harm to China's economy by cutting off its banking access to the West.
  • Raising the possibility Japan could go nuclear if North Korea is capable of annihilating it.

To call those “hard tasks” is an understatement. George W. Bush couldn't make the military threat convincing because he was bogged down in two other wars. Barack Obama couldn't because no sentient human believed he would risk a major war. Obama’s policy of "strategic patience" amounted to nap time, and Pyongyang used the lull to move full-steam-ahead on its nuclear and missile programs. Obama also made things worse by killing Moammar Gaddafi and destroying his regime after Gaddafi had given up his weapons of mass destruction. The message was clear, if inadvertent: Your life and your regime are in more danger if you give up your weapons than if you keep them. The U.S. sent a similar message in Ukraine, which gave up its Soviet-era nuclear weapons in return for promises of Western defense, promises that were abandoned when Russia invaded Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

No one knows if Trump’s strategy can change Beijing's calculus, but his willingness to use force on the peninsula is credible in ways Obama’s and Bush’s were not. His unpredictability and impulsiveness make the threat seem more credible. So does his economic nationalism, which makes his threats to the Chinese economy believable.

The administration is pursuing a dangerous path. Unfortunately, tepid diplomacy without credible military threats was dangerous, too. It ultimately failed, and we paid a price for waiting. The result is a nuclear crisis with no sure outcome, a mushroom-shaped question mark.

RCP contributor Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, where he is founding director of PIPES, the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He blogs at ZipDialog.com and can be reached at charles.lipson@gmail.com.

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